Middle East

Viewpoints: Netanyahu Further Isolates Israel

U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on March 3. (Photo: Caleb Smith)

Israel's allies in the Middle East are non-existent. And with its illegal occupation of Palestine, Israel is not very popular with the international community as a whole. But as long as it has enjoyed the steadfast support of the United States, Israel's isolation has not brought much in the form of consequences. Since the early 1970s, the United States has used its U.N. Security Council veto to block resolutions that are unfavorable to Israel, on issues related to anything from settlement expansion to the slaughter of civilians in Gaza. The United States has also lavished Israel with military aid, currently to the tune of $3 billion a year. However, over the past few months, U.S.-Israel relations have, shockingly, begun to strain in a serious way—due in no small part to the hardline, far-right, belligerent leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu alienated and aggravated U.S. President Barack Obama a month ago when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress that directly undermined the negotiations that the United States and the P5+1 nations have been engaging in with Iran over Iran's nuclear program—negotiations that just yesterday produced an important framework agreement. Then last week it emerged that Israeli intelligence spied on the Iran talks, feeding information to congressional Republicans eager to sabotage the budding rapprochement between the United States and Iran. And in his recent re-election campaign, Netanyahu publicly declared that Palestinian statehood would not happen on his watch, essentially spitting on the very idea of a two-state solution, a move that Politico said "won him the election in Israel and lost him the world." The United States is now re-evaluating its position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which could have had significant ramifications on a number of levels.

Worldpress.org takes a look at some of the recent coverage on this issue from around the world.

China – Xinhua, April 3: Israel's Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Thursday that the framework agreement announced earlier in the evening in Lausanne over Iran's nuclear program is "far" from being real. Steinitz made the remark on his Facebook page, shortly after the E.U. Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif presented the outline of the agreement in a press conference in the Swiss town. The minister said that the smiles seen on the faces of delegates from the P5+1 countries (China, the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia and Germany) and Iran during the press conference are "disconnected from the sad reality," adding that Israel will "continue its efforts and hope to prevent a bad agreement." Earlier on Thursday, Steinitz said that "all options were on the table" in preventing Iran from reaching nuclear weapons, including a military option.

Egypt – Ahram, March 25: As tension mounts with Washington, Israel's outgoing government has suspended a controversial plan to build hundreds of new settler homes in annexed East Jerusalem, a news website reported Wednesday. The plan involves the construction of 1,500 homes in the settlement neighborhood of Har Homa where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a controversial speech on the eve of March 17 elections, pledging to build thousands of new homes if returned to office. His remarks on East Jerusalem construction, along with comments ruling out a Palestinian state, have sparked a bitter spat with Washington. Ynet said Netanyahu's office had frozen the plans due to their "political sensitivity." Daniel Seidemann, director of settlement watchdog Terrestrial Jerusalem, told AFP that given the "highly problematic" nature of the plan and Netanyahu's current standoff with Washington, it had "a ring of truth" to it. "This would be a particularly inflammatory plan, and I think that he's afraid that the ceiling would cave in on him," he said.

France – France 24, March 26: The surprise victor of a March 17 election, Netanyahu looks well set to assemble a heavily right-leaning cabinet that will control 67 of parliament's 120 seats - a large majority in a country where no one party has ever been able to rule by itself. President Reuven Rivlin had some uncharacteristic criticism of Netanyahu as he went through the formality of handing him a mandate to establish a new government, having verified with party leaders that a majority supported him. He said Netanyahu faced some "critical tasks," and the first among them was improving relations with the United States. Rivlin also criticized Netanyahu's election-day jibe that Arab-Israeli voters were being bussed to the polls "in droves". "How awful would it be if the democratic duty to vote were be seen as a curse? One who is afraid of votes in a ballot box will eventually see stones thrown in the streets," Rivlin said.

Iran – Press TV, March 29: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has once again criticized a potential emerging nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries, saying the dangerous accord goes beyond what the Tel Aviv regime had feared. "The dangerous accord which is being negotiated in Lausanne [Switzerland] confirms our concerns and even worse," Netanyahu told a weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday.He claimed that Israel had "strong and continuing bipartisan support "from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the United States, adding, "I expressed to them our deep concern over the agreement being formulated with Iran in the nuclear talks."The Israeli premier has made similar comments in the past in order to throw a wrench in the nuclear negotiations. Netanyahu has been a fierce critic of U.S.-led efforts to reach a deal with Iran.

Israel – Haaretz, April 1: Bibi's opposition to Palestinian statehood dates to at least 1978, before Hamas even existed. In 1993, before Israeli leaders were even asking Palestinians to recognize Israel "as a Jewish state" (as opposed to simply recognizing Israel), Bibi warned that "to subdivide this land into two unstable, insecure nations, to try to defend what is indefensible, is to invite disaster." In 1998, long before violent jihadists controlled chunks of Syria and Iraq, Bibi told the Jerusalem Report, "I do not believe such a [Palestinian] state is a historic imperative … nor do I think Israel can achieve peace only by establishing a Palestinian state. On the contrary, I am convinced that such a state will endanger Israel and cause war." … While much has changed in the Middle East over the past few decades, Netanyahu's skepticism about a Palestinian state has remained remarkably constant.

Qatar – Al Jazeera, April 1: Palestine has formally attained membership of the International Criminal Court, a move that could open the door to possible war crime indictments against Israeli officials despite uncertainty over its wider ramifications. The accession on Wednesday is another landmark in the Palestinian diplomatic and legal international campaign, which gained steam in 2014. The Palestinians moved to join The Hague-based court on January 2, in a process that was finalized on Wednesday, setting the scene for potential legal action. "Palestine has and will continue to use all legitimate tools within its means in order to defend itself against Israeli colonization and other violations of international law," said senior Palestinian official Saeb Erakat. Al Jazeera's Jonah Hull, reporting from The Hague, said despite their membership, the Palestinians may still have to wait for the ICC to begin investigating Israelis accused of war crimes. … The ICC has long been brandished as one of the Palestinians' doomsday measures, along with threatening to end vital West Bank security coordination with Israel. … Israel retaliated swiftly and cut off millions of dollars in monthly tax payments it collects on behalf of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Turkey – Today's Zaman, March 18: Palestinian leaders on Wednesday called for international pressure on Israel and support for their unilateral moves toward statehood after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's election win. Netanyahu's surprise victory, after pledging in the final days of the campaign that there would be no Palestinian state as long as he was in power, left Palestinians grim about prospects for a negotiated solution to a decades-old conflict. "It is clear Israel has voted for burying the peace process, against the two-state choice and for the continuation of occupation and settlement," Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator in talks with Israel that collapsed in April, told Voice of Palestine radio. Seeking to shore up right-wing votes and saying that Islamist militants would move into any territory relinquished by Israel, Netanyahu also vowed to keep building settlements on occupied land Palestinians seek for a state. Palestinian leaders said a fourth term for the Likud party leader meant they must press forward with unilateral steps toward independence, including filing charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court. … The parliaments of several European countries, including Britain and France, have called on their governments to recognize an independent state of Palestine in the past year, reflecting exasperation at continued settlement building on occupied land. Sweden formally recognized Palestine in October.

United Kingdom – BBC, April 1: Is Israel about to lose its American firewall at the United Nations in New York, or will it continue to be flameproof? A year ago, these questions would have been near unthinkable. Protecting Israel from critical resolutions at the Security Council has long been a central pillar of U.S. Middle East policy. But so rapid has been the deterioration of relations between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government that America's protective shield is now up for discussion at the White House, as part of a broader review of U.S. relations with Israel. Rarely have the grievances between two such close allies been given such a public airing, or chronicled in such vivid and profane detail. Obama and his aides have made no secret of their anger at Benjamin Netanyahu for accepting an invitation from the Republican leadership to address a joint session of Congress in the midst of his re-election campaign, and then using that pulpit to denounce the potential nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran. Netanyahu's voiced opposition to Palestinian statehood in the final days of the Israel election campaign injected more poison into relations. …

Back in February 2011, the Obama administration used its first veto at the Security Council to block a resolution condemning settlement activity. Even as late as last December, it lobbied to thwart a Palestinian-backed resolution demanding an end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories by 2017, which failed to secure the necessary nine votes needed for passage (which meant a U.S. veto was not required to block it). The question now, just four months on, is whether the U.S. would allow a European-backed resolution outlining the parameters of a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians to pass the Security Council. Pushed by the French, discussions will begin this week on the possible wording of such a resolution, which could include a timetable for negotiations, and also the establishment of a Palestinian state. The Israelis would ordinarily expect the Americans to quash such a move. Now U.S. opposition is by no means guaranteed. Alert to a potential shift in policy, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week when he announced the resolution, "I hope that the partners who were reluctant will not be reluctant anymore."

United States – The New York Times, March 20: As Israelis digested the outcome of the elections in which Netanyahu, seeking a fourth term, won a decisive victory, they also began to confront the sharp social, religious and political fissures that crisscross the country. While Likud dominated in many northern and southern towns and cities, the Zionist Union, an alliance between the Labor Party and a small centrist faction, triumphed in largely secular, liberal Tel Aviv and its prosperous suburbs. The results exposed the widening gap between the "state of Tel Aviv" and the right-leaning "periphery," meaning the poorer areas beyond Israel's commercial center. The results also underscored the abiding divisions between the Ashkenazi Israelis of European descent, who dominated politics for decades after the founding of the state in 1948, and the Mizrahim, a term commonly used to refer to Sephardic Jews from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds—although more than 70 percent of Israel's Jews now are born in Israel. Playing on a term that usually refers to a solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli commentators spoke wryly about "two states for two peoples."